Saturday, October 30, 2010

Victory In The Making

What happened to downtown Holyoke.

Long ago, the streets used to bustle. The people used to move. The businesses used to prosper. It was a booming industrial city in a booming industrial country, during a booming industrial era.

For over a hundred years Holyoke created and manufactured on a global basis. Now... not so much. For decades now it has been a city on the ropes, it's former economic and industrial base almost vanished, poverty rates at state highs, and for too long relying on outside aid to stay afloat.

But in the city's present atmosphere of uncertainty and despair are glimmers of hope. Grasping at the city's bare old bones are small but lively groups of activists, advocates and long time residents. Urgent minds and hands trying furiously to cultivate rebirth and prosperity for the future of the city they love.

Successes by these advocates are mounting. Open Square, one of the earliest manufacturing plants, was once wrecked and empty. It's now brought back to life and housing coffee shops, art space and retail business.

Here and there in fits and starts, once crumbling red brick warehouses and defunct factories are being cleaned up and retreaded.

Pathways, parks and spruced up canal-sides. Rumors of giant high tech industries finding a home here in a stripped down but fully functional infrastructure that sustained a bygone manufacturing era.

Small groups and activists cannot attack the whole problem of Holyoke, it's too big. They have to pick apart the problems and repair, cause by cause; grabbing hold of whatever is within reach. Rejuvenating, restoring, setting it loose and then moving on to the next project.

One of those projects is the Victory Theater.

For several years now there has been an effort by the Holyoke advocates to restore this lost classic. Effort by people like this guy, who got himself involved.

The theater doors were open for public viewing and picture taking last weekend. After seeing many stories and photos on the net and news I was eager to get a look for myself.

As blown out and deteriorating the closed theater was when it was originally considered for restoration, it actually looked much better before the restoration work started. What now looks like utter destruction are just the beginning phases of the long slog ahead.

Much of the surviving finer details like the giant silk tapestries that lined the walls have already been removed for restoration or replication.

Loose paint has begun to be scraped away. Unsalvageable beams, trusses and girders are being ripped down to be replaced. Walls and floorboards are gutted. There's a lot of work to do.

A. lot. of. work.

But standing down in front of the stage and orchestra pit, ( and just the fact that there is an orchestra pit is awesome),

...or high above in the third level seating, you can get a sense of the grandness and attention to detail that was integral to structure and designs back in the day.

It's a lost art that should be restored. This is what needs to be brought back to life.

Poking around the dark lobbies, back halls and side rooms of the theater, I didn't see any bugs or mice, but the place was crawling with photogs.

Amateurs, hobbyists and pros were everywhere, sporting everything from point and shoots to top of the line 'L' series lenses perched on heavy Manfrotto tripods. It seems almost dangerous to bring such expensive equipment to such a dusty equipment unfriendly place. Measurable depths of particulate and debris was coating or being kicked up from every square inch of the place.

A photo equipment unfriendly environment indeed.

So you might appreciate my abject horror when my own modest but most expensive lens suddenly pops out of my pocket, and with a dull thump lands in a half inch of the finest demolition dust. Then it rolls a bit before going plunk, plunk, roll, plunk down some rotting god forsaken steps and into a pitch-black hole down under the stage. Now imagine yours truly steeling his nerve and crunching down, gingerly stepping into the black pit in pursuit. Repeatedly pressing the shutter button and using his camera flash to light the way in bursts of gruesome.

Amazing. Almost every nook and cranny of the place needs to be done over. It's almost bewildering how much work will be needed to get a show going on that stage again. Success will be a monumental achievement.

But there are people working on it. They've drawn up plans, they're getting people and resources together...

...they're keeping the hope alive.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rice With Larry

A while back, Arizona-transplanted former valley resident Larry R. suggested we take a hike up the nearby Rice Farm Nature Preserve in Wilbraham. He was sure it would knock our socks off. Procrastinator Tony M. did a quick google search, thought it looked cool, but then allowed the advice to slip to the the back burner on his list of valley things to check out.

Then the old farm and its protected preserve regained my attention again when some purchases concerning the old farmland and it's nearby iconic stand was recently in the news. I recalled Larry's email, deemed this to be an ideal hike for leaf peeping, and immediately made plans forthwith.

Turns out Tony M. was a idiot, as this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable hikes of our year.

Rice Farm Nature Preserve was close by, the sun was beaming bright that afternoon, the weather was crisp and cool, the wind gusting and the foliage, well, let's say the whole shebang was conducive to a good hike.

The trail head is found at the end of Highmoor street in Wilbraham. It starts with a low, level walk over some extensive roots and freshly carpeted leaf clutter.

Then it's an easy march along well marked trails under a canopy of color.

The trail steadily gains altitude winding up a low hillside, but at no point getting to what we'd call too steep or difficult. Although it's late in the year, the woods are still very much alive.

Time flew and it didn't seem to take too long before we were near the upper reaches of the hillside. The plan was to head for a 'Sunrise Peak' that was marked off on our trail map; where there are some ledges we thought would give us good views of Monson to the east and beyond.

But then our handy GPS was showing that there was an apple orchard right nearby and we decided to fit it into the route. A short walk later and the wooded trail suddenly opened up into a broad open apple orchard, stretching back down the hillside.

And above the low-slung apple trees was the aforementioned sock-knocking view Larry had advised, lo' these many months ago.

The lower valley stretches out before us and is curbed in the distance by Mt. Tom and the Holyoke range, all the way to Long Mountain.

All the while, fast moving clouds splotched calico shadows on the whole orange peppered scene.

It was downright magical.

We stopped here and took a break on the grassy trail, relaxing and soaking up the view. While the bloggerette explored the area grasses and milkweed, I was on the look-out for landlocked and/or air bound wildlife.

It wasn't long before she was rewarded with a coat full of tag-alongs,

...and I was rewarded with a low fly-by from a red tail Hawk.

The raptor was riding the wind billowing up the hillside, and using it to hover in place while it scanned for lunch; occasionally dive bombing the tall grasses for some unseen, unlucky creature.

After a good healthy dose of this mountain living, we cleared the bloggerette's coat, made her put her shoes back on, and moved on up the grassy hill. Nearby and right above the apple orchard was a wide clearing devoid of trees, and providing an even wider view of the stunning scenery.

I was half expecting Julie Andrews to come dancing out of the woods at this point.

But instead, some low dark clouds were emerging from above the trees and were moving in fast. The bloggerette's nose was a little red and sniffly from all the action, the sun was confoundedly sinking to the west, and it was time to think about heading back down.

Sunrise Peak and it's ledges will have to wait for a return visit.

...which, there certainly will be.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sun Spotting

It was an excellent couple of days for leaf peeping. We had manged to get in a couple of good hikes for a healthy dose of color and exercise. But Kelly had to work Sunday night, which left the bloggerette and I to wind out the weekend ourselves. We discussed our options and decided a ride up to Mt. Pollux was in order, for a good sunset viewing.

Since days like these will soon be in short supply, it seemed best not to waste a minute indoors.

There was a smattering of people on the hilltop, just hanging out, quietly contemplating and soaking in the last rays of the day.

Then there was this one guy, who was enjoying the scene a little more intently than the others.

He had brought up his telescope and had it aimed at the sun. Everyone within earshot was invited to have a look.

His name is Tom, a member of the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association. He can be found here from April to October, on Saturday afternoons and Sundays at sunset, ever eager to share the treasures of the sky with whoever is willing to listen, or watch.

I took a turn at the telescope and in the eye piece, sure enough, was a large, beautifully rendered view of our mighty yellow Sol. Replete with sunspots and atmospheric shimmer.

Tom offered up plenty of info on the sun and other heavenly objects as each of us peered through the glass, and several minutes later generously invited everyone for another round as the sun slowly melted into the horizon, now compressing into a more oval shape due to refraction of the atmosphere, and the distant tree tops in the eyepiece swayed in silhouette against a vanishing orange disk.

Then in a flash, it was gone.

Most everyone remaining was now making their way back down the hill. The bloggerette and I hung out for a few more minutes with Tom and another straggler. Tom had one more thing to show us. After all, what does an astronomer do when the sun is all gone?

Points his scope at the moon, of course.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Keystone 1-2

We went out deeper into hill country, out to Chester to check out the Keystone Arches. The arches are a series of three towering old railroad bridges spanning the western branch of the Westfield river. Throwbacks to the mid 19th century railroad boom days, the tallest of the three is over 70 feet high, and none of them built with any mortar. They were the first 'keystone' arches built in America, part of the longest and highest railway of it's day.

It was worth an autumn hike.

The trail-head is on Middlefield road, near the Chester/ Middlefield line.

The trail is about 2.5 miles each way, and it's actually a rocky double tracked vehicle-accessible fire road for the first section. But walking was the order of the day. It's easier to take in a waterfall that way.

It's not too far to the first bridge. A double arched construction settled in with the forest. Not ridiculously tall, but impressive for it's strength and age. No mortar or cement, remember.

A couple passing hikers informed us that the next arch was about 25 hiking minutes away, and with the sun getting low, we'd probably not make it there and back before dark. So with this initial section of the trail scouted out and the rest looking pretty inviting, we decided to return the next day; earlier, more prepared, and equipped with our bikes.

The next morning found us back again as planned, now carefully rambling over the rocky path on our two wheelers past the first bridge, and on.

Winding along with the Westfield river, pulling away into the woods here and coming back to it's banks there.

Following the river it's not easy to get lost, but if you don't pay attention to where the trail veers off you can suddenly find yourself along some lonely stretch of active track, with no trail to be seen.

A little back-tracking and these blue markers will put you back on course.

Then some steady and more vigorous ascending. We'd occasionally have to get off and walk the bikes or let the bloggerette snack and stretch her legs, but kept making progress.

...until the double track ends abruptly at the edge of a steep descent. The trail here gets very narrow and runs along a steep descending hillside. We had gone about a mile, but there was no way we'd get both the bikes and the baby safely down this tricky section of trail.

Still, the next bridge felt so tantalizingly close. I had come to get a picture of it and after two trips in one weekend the likelyhood of getting out here again this year probably slim. Since there were plenty of other friendly hikers around, it was deemed safe for the ladies to stay behind and guard the bikes while I set off by myself to see if the next keystone arch was just around the next bend in the trail.

One bend turned into another and soon I was crossing trestle foot bridges and weaving through narrow leaf cluttered trails, scrambling over rocks and descending all along, getting nearer and nearer to the river at the bottom.

But the farther from the girls, the more urgent the passing time seemed to get and soon I was trotting along at the fastest pace possible. Finally down at river level, the single track met up again with a double track fire road, and at first, still no bridge in sight.

I couldn't turn around now and plowed forward just a little more. Thennnn, a little more. At last, with huffing breath I could see through sweat soaked eyes that there was something in the distance.

Something dark cutting tall and horizontal across the brilliant tangle of the autumn branches and leaves.

Something commandingly tall in the lonely forest, geometrically precise in the chaos of the wild, something slender in proportion but weighty and solid in form. Something decidedly... man made.

With bridge #2 under my belt and on my memory card, I made all haste back down the double track and then up the hill; wildly clambering and pulling and pushing the wheezing envelope of my endurance to it's limit. This actually felt pretty good, being so long since I've really pushed myself. Must. Do. More of this.

Getting closer to the girls I stopped to call out across the remaining span of woods with what little air I could muster, then bated my heaving breath to listen intently for a reply...

It came echoing through the wood in the form of a highly irritated "Yeaaah? Whaaat!?"

All I needed to hear and could slow down to catch some breath before finally reaching them. Coming around the last turn, my lightheaded grin of accomplishment was met with two less than plussed gazes of impatience.

Ahh my two favorite girls. Home sweet home.

Bridge #3 will have to wait.